Us ★★★★½

For any with lingering doubts, Jordan Peele should be taken seriously as one of the better filmmakers in cinema today. If Get Out was proof of concept, Us is the continuation of development on several fronts. Us is another step forward for horror as a genre that is every bit as valuable as any other for artistic expression, and once again Peele puts some weight in his narrative punches as he goes to work on aspects of American society. Us is also a continued refinement of black cinema; as Black Panther was the most high profile example to date of what Afrofuturism means in contemporary art, this film is an example of what a movie looks like that's made with black folks in mind but accessible to a universal audience.

The wellspring of Peele's horror thus far has been the experience of the black person in America, and in that sense Us is an even more layered experience than Get Out. The background tension that eventually explodes is the feeling of being a middle-class black family. And unlike the Huxtables, the Wilsons are freed from the need to be exemplars and get to experience all of the tensions that role brings. The immediate tension comes in the form of the fucking obnoxious Josh (Tim Heidecker) and Kitty (Elisabeth Moss), friends in the academic sense of the family and an impossible material standard which looms constantly in family patriarch Gabe's (Winston Duke) mind. The characters don't dwell on the fact that they are the only black family on the well-heeled Santa Cruz beach, because they don't have to. Camerawork and editing transmute the outwardly sunny and joyful scenes into a threatening presence, denoted in a deliciously smartass manner by Jason's (Evan Alex) Jaws shirt. These are technical touches that indicate the hand of a master.

The deeper layer, the foundation upon which this film is built, is the constant sense that the Wilsons do not belong in their lives. This is a feeling that is familiar to anyone, and in this country it's disproportionately people of color, who occupies a higher social station than those that they're supposed to be with. This grinding feeling that runs on background processing for those in this situation is personified aptly by the Tethered. Who did you step over to get where you are? Whose share are you currently taking? Who have you turned your back on to be where you are? In real life, these are questions that we can safely stuff down and ignore. In this film, there are specific answers to these questions and they come armed with scissors and murderous intent. It's no accident that, beneath the demented Michael Jackson glove homages and symbolic choice of weaponry, these folks wear red.

There's so many little stylistic and thematic threads that are woven through the film with care. The 11:11 motif packs a nice psychological undercurrent. The recognition of the 1980s as modern horror's ancestral homeland is well-placed, the later events of the film flavored heavily by a character's arrested development in 1986 and Thriller t-shirt. Rabbits are lately becoming a spirit animal for the strange and otherworldly, finding modern expression in this and The Favourite, but with roots ranging back to Harvey and Night of the Lepus. Scissors, beyond the obvious untethering symbolism, for some reason pack an additional psychological punch as a weapon beyond a mere knife, as evidenced before in Dead Again. And I did appreciate the VHS copy of C.H.U.D. in the opening scene, as an example of how to drop references without the excessive nudges to the ribs that most directors employ.

Lupita Nyong'o gives the expert contraption its human component, and she really carries this film as both hero and villain. Especially in her role as Red, with her terrifying facial expressions that will prove to be the film's primary psychological imprint and that future filmmakers will reference, knowingly or unknowingly. And in both roles, Nyong'o moves with a raw violence that is far more effective than any amount of blood. Peele assigns her double (possibly triple) duty in moving the narrative forward, and she excels in conveying all of the elements mentioned above, a fine scaffold for all of the symbolism (including the particularly brutal handcuff imagery) while also being a believable set of people. Nyong'o deserves recognition as deliverer of one of the early keystone performances of 2019.

Additional recognition should go to Michael Abels, who continues a run of recent horror films such as Suspiria and Hereditary with outstanding scores that settle into your head like an intruder in the attic. There are so many parts of this film that are done well, but Abels' music keeps pace with all of them in unsettling the viewer and adding to the overall artistic signature of the enterprise. The score will forever be an instantly recognizable aspect of Us, the warped choir singing in an unidentifiable language ringing in ears for weeks afterward.

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